In the small village of Gogorobovsk, outside St. Petersburg in Russia, during the reign of Catherine the Great, lived a carpenter of Swedish origin. His name was Karl Karlovitj Rusov, and his father, Karl Lans, had been a soldier in the Swedish army under Charles XII.
Karl Lans had been taken as a prisoner of war and had been sent to St. Petersburg to work at the construction sites of the newly founded town. He had changed his faith, from Swedish Protestant to Russian Orthodox, and had married a Russian woman, Olga Nikolajevna, with whom he had one son, the aforementioned carpenter.
Karl Lans took the name Karl Andrejevitj Rusov, and was soon considered completely Russian, apart from his accent which could very easily be explained away as a dialect from the far northern parts of the Russian empire. He was considered by his peers as a quiet man, of great piety, who was in church every Sunday, and a moderate consumer of vodka. His son, Karl Karlovitj, was a different matter.
Karl Karlovitj Rusov had five children, three sons and two daughters, and he could not feed them all. This was because he had a great love for vodka, and a less than great enthusiasm for doing any decent work and earning enough money to support both his drinking and his children. And after the death of the elder Rusov, Karl Karlovitj had ceased to go to church. And after the death of his much beloved wife, Natalja Karpova, his drinking had increased.
One day he decided to sell one of his sons, and maybe one of his daughters at a later occasion, to the owner of a brothel in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, which served those who had tastes that could not be served in the town.
The son the younger Rusov chose was the prettiest one: Oleg Karlovitj Rusov. Oleg was at the time about ten years old, with rosy cheeks, brilliant blue eyes, and hair the color of autumn leaves. The boy also had a quick wit and a tender heart. He took good care of his younger brother and sisters, making sure they had something to eat and something to feed the fire with every day. The neighbors suspected him to be the one to steal eggs and hens from them, and that it was him who walked around in the kitchen garden at night, stealing vegetables and fruits. No-one could prove anything though, since there also was a fox in the area who had to feed its cubs, and anything Oleg could be blamed for, the fox also could be guilty of.
One summer morning Rusov woke up his son. "Get dressed", he whispered. "We have a long way to walk today"
"Where are we going?", Oleg asked. His father didn't answer.
"Can I at least tell the kids that I'm going away?"
They walked the whole morning, and by midday they had reached the outskirts of St. Petersburg. They stopped at a crossroad, the right one leading to the city, and the left one leading to one of the less pleasant suburbs. Rusov walked to the left with Oleg in tow. Half a mile later they stopped at a well.
"Wash yourself", Rusov said to Oleg.
Oleg washed himself and combed his hair with his fingers. "Why have you taken me here? Am I to work in one of those houses?"
"Am I to work in a kitchen, or in the stables, or in the garden?"
"You ask too much. Shut up!"
They walked on, to a large house, that lay in an alley on the other side of which was a church. Rusov knocked on the door to the large house. A man opened, and told them to go to the smaller door of the house, next to the large one, where they would be received by the proprietor of the house. They did so, and entered a hallway, where the man, who was a janitor, told Oleg to wait. Oleg had been standing in the hallway for a while, when his father came out into the hallway and walked past him.
"Are we leaving now, Father?"
"I'm leaving. You are staying."
"Did I get a job here?"
"Where will I work?"
"You will serve the clients of this place."
"What does that mean?"
"You'll find out."
"Will I have days off so I can visit the kids?"
"Then who will make sure they are all right?"
"No, you won't."
"You'll drink, and forget to get the kids food, and firewood. They'll starve."
Rusov slapped his son in the face, and leaving Oleg on the floor, he walked out through the door.
In this story I am trying to write in the style of the Icelandic writers who wrote such masterpieces as 'Njal's Saga' during the 14th and 15th centuries, telling about things that had happened two hundred years before. This is a rather grim tale, and I have endeavored to keep my language as unemotional and neutral as possible.
A month after his arrival, Oleg's virginity was sold to a man who was not gentle. He cried himself to sleep that night, and not for the first or the last time.
A year after that, Oleg found that he had not thought about his sisters and brothers, for a whole day.
And a year after that, the owner decided that Oleg was no longer in the taste of the clientele of the house. The boy had grown into a skinny twelve-year-old with reddish hair. The brilliance of his eyes had been dimmed, but not his wit. His heart had hardened though and was less inclined to feel compassion for anyone. He also knew about things boys his age should not know anything about. Thus he was thrown out from the house where he had lived and worked for two years, and found himself being free, released from his serfdom.
The first thing he did was to walk south, away from St. Petersburg. He followed the coast until he arrived to his native village. There he stopped and asked at the local inn about the family Rusov.
Since the innkeeper did not recognize him, Oleg decided not tell him that he himself was a Rusov.
"Well," the innkeeper said, "that's a sad tale. First Natalja Rusova dies, and then Rusov sells his middle son for enough money to drink himself to death, and then the children leaves."
"Does Sir know where the kids are?"
"No, I don't."
Oleg thanked him for the information and by way of the graveyard, where he checked on his parents graves, he walked further south along the coast. He didn't stop his long walk until he came to a small town in the former Swedish province of Ingria by the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the late September. There he went to an inn and asked if they knew of anywhere where someone might want to hire people for the winter, as servants, or as stable-boys.
The innkeeper told him that there was a farmer who needed a few extra hands for the harvest, and told him the way there. Oleg went to this farm and indeed got work there until November. He worked and got a decent pay for his job. Then he went back to the inn and asked again if there was any need for a stable-boy anywhere.
The innkeeper, Ivan Karpov, told him that he himself could use someone who could work hard for food and lodgings, and some coins every week.
"As long as I get paid for my work," Oleg answered, " I'll work."
"Then you are hired!"
Oleg worked there the whole winter, and when the rooks came back in the spring he was asked to stay. "I've never seen anyone so young who has such a good hand with horses," said Karpov and shook his head.
"It's a gift, I guess."
Oleg stayed there for seven winters and six summers. When he did not work at the inn, he was out with the fishermen in the Gulf of Finland or helping out with this and that around the village. Every Christmas he lit a candle in the village church. and said a prayer for his lost brothers and sisters. He only visited the church once a year. He grew tall and strong, and was considered by the time he turned seventeen to be a handsome young man. But he was only a stable-hand and thus not a very eligible choice for husband. And he did not show very much interest in girls himself.
One day in the beginning of his seventh winter at the inn, in November, a stranger came to the inn. He was dressed in a uniform that did not fit into any army Oleg ever had seen, not that he had seen very many, of course.
"I'm Captain Suomi," said the stranger with a strong Finnish accent, "I'd like to let my troupe stay here for the winter."
"How many are you?"
"Where are the others?"
"They are on their way."
During the day captain Suomi's men arrived, one and one, or two and two. Oleg heard their names: Le Neigeux, Arlechino, Pärleyxa, Schwartz, Patch, Jete-Le-Jaune and Rossi.
"But you are only eight!"
"That's because Isegrim hasn't come yet," replied the one known as Pärleyxa, a tall blonde man, with a thick Swedish accent.
"The mad one of us."
"That's because he's going to sleep out in the stables, until it gets too cold, and because he's not behaving like a sane man very often."
Oleg stuck around the soldiers and heard many a tale about Isegrim. Many of them were about his temper, and about his ruthlessness in fights. And in the evening, when the first stars had lit up, Isegrim arrived at the inn.
Oleg was cleaning up in the stables, taking in straw to the horses, and other tasks he used to do at the end of the day. The soldiers' horses was well fed and well kept. So Oleg liked the soldiers because they were taking well care of their horses.
The door to the stables opened and Oleg saw a black horse enter, with a man dressed all in black, with a wide-brimmed black hat, holding the reins loosely.
"Well, Daredevil," said the man to the horse, "here's where we are going to stay for the winter."
Oleg went forward to greet them. "Hello there," he said.
"Who are you?" said the man.
"Oleg the stable-hand, and who are you?"
Oleg looked at the stranger who called himself Isegrim. Isegrim did not look quite like the other soldiers. He was tall and graceful, with uncombed black hair that was standing on edge. He was one of the palest men Oleg had ever seen, and his teeth were filed into sharp fangs. Isegrim was a fitting name for such a man.
"I've heard that you prefer to sleep out in the stables," said Oleg.
Isegrim put his horse into one of the stalls. He was careful with the removal of the saddle and the bit, hanging them on one of the walls that parted one stall from the other. Then he asked for brushes, and Oleg fetched them.
"You take good care of your horse."
"Yes. Daredevil is the finest horse I've ever known. He deserves everything good."
"Daredevil? That's a strange name."
"It's English. It means some one who is daring, and likes to take a lot of risks."
"If you are German, then why does the horse have an English name?"
"Because I won him from a Brit who thought that he could beat me in a swordfight. He put his horse against my sword. Said that it was a collector's item." Isegrim sneered a bit at that, but Oleg didn't see it as he was standing with his back to him.
When Isegrim had groomed Daredevil, he climbed up to the hayloft. He dug a hole in the hay, and put out his cloak. Then he pulled the cloak around him, and brushed some hay over it to preserve the warmth.
Oleg went up to the hayloft a while later, carrying a couple of horse-blankets.
"I thought you might want some blankets." Isegrim looked at him.
"Here's two, to keep you warm", Oleg continued.
Isegrim didn't say a word. Then he reached out for the blankets. Oleg put them into his hands. Then he wished him a good night. The other soldiers asked Oleg whether Isegrim had arrived or not. Oleg told them that he had. The next day Isegrim asked if Oleg would like to learn how to fight with a sword in return for the horse-blankets.
"Yes," answered Oleg, and Isegrim asked one of the younger soldiers, Jete-Le-Jaune, to lend out his sword.
Afterwards, when Oleg returned the sword, Jete-Le-Jaune said to him: "I think he likes you."
"Do you have anything against it."
"It's good for everybody to have somebody to like," said Pärleyxa, who sat nearby, brushing his boots, "and Isegrim is a good man and a fine warrior despite his madness."
"How can someone be a good man and a mad man at the same time?"
"His kind of madness would have been called eccentricity if he had lots of money and protection in high places."
The next morning Oleg went to the stables with some bread and hot tea. He climbed up to the hayloft and watched as Isegrim slept. When the mercenary woke up he was offered the bread and tea.
"It's a bit cold but drinkable."
Oleg talked, while Isegrim ate his breakfast. "Do you do this for everyone?" Isegrim asked when he had finished eating.
"No, only for those who prefer horses to people."
"Horses *are* people. Humans...I am not too fond of humans in general, but I care for some of them. The troupe."
Isegrim didn't answer that question. Instead, he rose and asked if Oleg wanted to continue his lessons in fighting.
That night Oleg crept down in the hay to sleep next to Isegrim under the thick coarse blankets. And the next night Oleg did the same thing again, and all nights after that. They talked sometimes and sometimes they did not. Isegrim told of places he'd been, and Oleg talked about his life.
When the winter got too cold, sometime around St. Lucy's day, Isegrim moved into the reserved room in the inn, and Oleg went with him.
The other mercenaries noticed this and did not say anything at all about it. The winter passed, and when spring came, Oleg was asked to join the troupe. Captain Suomi said that they needed someone who was good with horses, and that Oleg would fit into the group perfectly.
"But Isegrim is good with horses too, isn't he?" said Oleg.
"Yes, but he is not very good with people, so we need someone who can deal with both horses and people."
They gave Oleg a new name. He was now called Rot-Schwantz, because of his red hair. All the other members in the troupe had names like that too. No-one of them was called by his real name.
Patch explained this to Oleg. "We keep our true names to us like diamonds, we hide them under our false names, like the people of Venice hide their faces under masks during the carnival."
"So Patch is not your name then?"
"It is my name, just not my true name."
One week later, in the beginning of March, the troupe left the inn and rode away. Oleg was with them. He did not have a horse of his own so he sat behind Isegrim on Daredevil. He looked back on the place where he had spent some good years, and then he looked forward and did not look back again.
The troupe traveled to the western borders of the Russian empire. There had been rumors of an upcoming war between two Polish noblemen, each of them having enough money to pay for the help the mercenaries could sell. So they went to first one, and when he would not pay the price Captain Suomi asked, they contacted the other. He was willing pay the price asked.
During the days before the battle Isegrim grew more and more eager to for the fight to start. He paced back and forth in their lodgings, and the other soldiers were happy that Rot-Schwantz was there to talk him out of the more restless bouts of impatience.
"When will they end the diplomacy and start the war?" Isegrim asked one day.
"I think tomorrow. The diplomats look less and less hopeful now", said Captain Suomi from the other side of the room.
Pärleyxa said to Rot-Schwantz: "Isegrim is a berserker. Where I come from we have legends about them. Invincible in war, and bloodthirsty."
"I've never seen him like this."
"You have not known him for very long."
"I guess I'll just have to remember what he is like when there is not a war going on."
"A wise decision. According to legend, the bersekers were also very nice people in times of peace."
The battle began three days later. It was Rot-Schwantz' first battle. He fought with the axe he had borrowed from Isegrim, and killed at least three from the other side, and wounded four more. Isegrim was fighting like a demon from hell, lopping off heads with his sword. A couple of times, he saved Rot-Schwantz' back. When the battle was over, after three days, Rot-Schwantz had gotten his first wounds; a scar over the left cheek, and a bullet in his left arm.
"Well, Rot-Schwantz", said Le Neigeux as he put a bandage around the young man's arm, "what did you think of your first battle?"
"I didn't know I could fight like that. I never thought I was a killer."
"Everyone can be a killer, given the right circumstances."
"Still at the battlefield. He's looking for a pair of new boots for you, and some weapons too."
"Is he plundering the corpses?"
"They are dead. They don't need the boots any more, but you do. And a sword."
Rot-Schwantz did not answer, and when Isegrim arrived with a pair of boots, he tried them on. "They are too small", he said.
"Then give me your old boots so I can get the right size." The other pair Isegrim brought fit perfectly.
Isegrim found for himself a pair of very ornate riding-boots, that most probably had belonged to one of the higher officers. They were ornate with buckles along the sides, and spurs with a twisted look.
"That fellow, with the boots, he was the son of him who would not pay our price", Isegrim told the others with a grin.
"Well, he saved a few coins, but it cost him his son", commented Captain Suomi.
When Rot-Schwantz had put on his new boots he rose and began to get used to them. He walked to the battle-field and looked at the dead, not one muscle moving in his face. From one corpse he picked up a sword with belt and scabbard, and from another a new satchel.
"You do not need these anymore," he whispered, "but I do."
Then he saw the horse.
The grey steed, a gelding with grey mane and tail was an extraordinary kind of horse, bred to be durable on the battlefield. It wandered around aimlessly on the battlefield, sniffing at one body here and one body there. Rot-Schwantz went closer to it to see what it was doing. Then he walked to meet the horse with his hands in front of him. The horse sniffed at his hands, and soon let the young mercenary pat him and lead him by the reins.
"Look here what I've found!" He said to the other men.
"Finders are keepers," replied Captain Suomi and asked Rot-Schwantz what he would call the steed.
"He's gray, so I'll call him Dust." All the others laughed and said that it was a good name for a gray horse.
The troupe left the area after a couple of weeks. For the next three years they traveled all over Europe, seeking work at the battlefields. Some members died and new ones were added to the group.
One day in January 1774, when they were wintering over in the south of France, Captain Suomi told the troupe that the Hessian king wanted people to send over to America.
"They pay well, and I for one would like to see what that 'New World' looks like."
"Me too", said Le Neigeux, and the others agreed.
The journey to Hesse-Kassel was not very exciting, so everyone in the troupe had the time to talk about this New World across the Atlantic. Jete-Le-Jaune was the only one who had at least read a few lines about the colonies and thus he was made the resident expert on America. He told the others about what he had read, and they asked him questions about the land. Only Isegrim did not ask a single word. Rot-Schwantz asked him if he was not curious about the voyage to the new world.
"No", was the answer.
"We will be there to fight, and one battle is pretty much like another."
"I wonder if we will see any of those red-skinned Indians Jete-Le-Jaune talked about."
"We won't fight Indians, we will fight colonists, and last time he said anything about that, they were white."
"Well, be as it will be, but tomorrow we'll arrive to Kassel."
Isegrim nodded and they went to bed.
The barracks in which the soldiers were housed were not very luxurious, but there was a yard where the soldiers were exercising from sunrise to sunset. Isegrim was excused from these drills since he had explained to the commander that he would not participate in such pointless strutting.
One day an artist named Peter Vogel came to the rooms where Captain Suomi and his troupe resided. He explained to them that he was painting a satire of the Hessian king and his council.
"What do you need us for then? To protect you?"
"No. You see there's this painting of the King and his council and on my painting I will place you exactly like them. You, Sir, will be seated exactly like the King."
"That does sound like an amusing thing to me, but you'll have to ask the others if they want to pose for you."
"Oh, no need for that. I'll just stick around and make sketches of you." And Vogel did hang around with his sketchpad and his pencils, and the mercenaries either ignored him or tolerated him.
One week before they would leave for the ships awaiting them Peter Vogel brought a friend to the barracks. The friend was introduced to Captain Suomi as Claus Aschenbach. Rot-Schwantz was nearby, tending to his horse in a corner of the yard when he overheard a conversation between the two artists.
"I'm certain that man called Isegrim is my brother, he who ran away from the Academy twenty-two years ago", said Aschenbach.
"If it's been such a long time ago how could you recognize him?"
"Because he is a spitting image of our father."
"What are you going to do then?"
"I don't know. He's crazy isn't he?"
It was then Rot-Schwantz decided to cut into the discussion. "If he had money he'd be called eccentric, not crazy, or mad!" Aschenbach blushed, and nodded.
"That young fellow is the one closest to Isegrim," said Vogel, pointing to the young man.
"Can you take me to him?" Aschenbach asked Rot-Schwantz.
"Yes, but don't upset him."
Isegrim was in the stables, yelling at a stable-boy who had forgot about the water for Daredevil. Rot-Schwantz went to him and told him he had visitors. Isegrim turned around to see who they were.
"Hello", said Aschenbach with a little smile, "long time no see."
"Who are you?" Isegrim asked.
"I'm your brother; Claus."
"I have no brother."
"But I am your brother! Georg, please remember!"
"As I said, I don't know you. Now get out!" Isegrim drew his axe for more emphasis.
Vogel took Aschenbach by the arm and dragged him out. "I told you not to upset him!" Rot-Schwantz yelled after them.
Le Neigeux had overheard the commotion and came to the stables just as Vogel and Aschenbach left. "What has happened here?" he asked.
"Nothing," said Isegrim and Rot-Schwantz.
"Somehow I doubt that," said the older soldier, "But we are leaving in a week and 'nothing' better *not* happen again."
For the remainder of that week, 'nothing' did not happen again, but Rot-Schwantz saw Aschenbach outside the gates of the camp a few times. But since he never paid much attention to people that did not have money or were not soldiers, he did not care much about that. When that last week was over, the Hessian troupes left for America.
The journey was long and strenuous. First the Hessian troupes marched to the ports where the ships were waiting, and then there was the sea voyage. Rot-Schwantz had not thought that it would be such a long voyage to America, so he was a bit surprised when he learned that the travel over the Atlantic was going to take more than a month. He had never been out on the sea for that long, and neither had any of the other soldiers.
Everything and everyone had been loaded onboard the ship. The horses had been installed in their 'stables', and Isegrim had managed to get a cot installed there so he could keep a close eye on Daredevil. As for Rot-Schwantz, he slept wherever Isegrim slept.
The British and the Hessian officers lifted an eyebrow at this, and a few said something about that, but in the end no-one dared to do anything about it. After all, as one of the older sergeants said, who were they to fight the devils. Let the priests do that.
After a long voyage, during which Isegrim and many of the others were often sea-sick, and always sick of being on a ship at all, they saw their first glimpse of the shores of America.
Daredevil and Dust were very unsteady on their legs as they walked ashore.
"I think they are about as worried as we are about the ground suddenly tilting one way or the other instead of being still", said Rot-Schwantz sitting on the ground together with the other mercenaries.
"I can't believe I would be so happy seeing a plain ordinary piece of land", exclaimed Jete-Le-Jaune.
"I'm never ever gonna get aboard one of these floating coffins again for as long as I live!" Pärleyxa shouted, and the others agreed. "I'd rather either die here or open an inn somewhere", he continued.
"Then I'll join you", replied Jete-Le-Jaune.
"And if we survive, count me in", added Rot-Schwantz
"What about you Isegrim?"
"I'll die before that happen", Isegrim answered.
"You don't want to have an inn?" asked Rot-schwantz.
"I mean that I'll probably won't survive for that long."
The months went by. One battle here, a couple of traitors there on both sides, diseases and all the other things that were part of war decimated Captain Suomi's troupe and the rest of the army as well.
One day a year had gone by since they got to the strange shores of the New World. Nobody said anything about it. It was not a reason to celebrate after all. Isegrim got more and more introspective, barely saying anything at all.
"Do you know what's wrong with him", Captain Suomi asked Rot-Schwantz one day, near the end of their second fall in America.
"No, but I think he is going mad."
"He already is that."
"Not eccentric, just mad, mad as in crazy, mad as in not having a grip on the world anymore." "Has he threatened you?"
"No, but I sometimes catch him staring at something that's not there, and then he says things like 'why am I inside a burning windmill.'
Captain Suomi digested this for a few moments. "I see", he said eventually.
One day, in the beginning of 1777, they entered a small village outside New York. It was a loyalist village and the inhabitants cheered as the soldiers paraded by the small houses. Everything went well, except for a prankster who tried to upset Rot-Schwantz' and Isegrim's horses.
Their camp were a few miles north of the village. One week later they fought yet a battle against the Americans.
The battle went like all other battles. One side won, the other had therefore lost, and after the proclamation they counted their dead. Rot-Schwantz had been shot in the leg and was brought to the field hospital, where an overworked field surgeon bandaged it and told him to rest the leg for a while.
Four days later Rot-Schwantz came down with a fever. He did not say anything about it to anyone, though they could see that something was wrong with him. When they finally understood that something was wrong with him, it was already too late. He was asked to go to the field surgeon, but he said no. Captain Suomi suggested that he could try and stay out of the next battle, which was to take place the next morning, but the young man insisted on taking part of it. Since they realized that Rot-Schwantz would not be persuaded to hide somewhere or to go to the sickbay, he was helped up on his horse the following morning. He was tied to the saddle so that he would not fall off during the day. Isegrim rode beside him to the appointed place and held him by the arm to steady him, and could feel how hot his friend was.
When the sun set on the battlefield Rot-Schwantz was found dead in the saddle on his horse. He looked like a scarecrow. When they had taken his body down from the horse they found that he had been hit in the chest with five bullets. It could not be decided which one that had been the killing one.
Thus ends Oleg's saga.
Isegrim died two years later in a fight with a group of American soldiers.
Jete-Le-Jaune, Le Neigeux and Pärleyx, who were the only ones in the troupe stilliving after the war, stayed in America, and did open an inn, in the countryside outside New York.